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Pee Wee Ellis (1941–2021), bandleader for James Brown, Van Morrison

by Linnea Crowther

Pee Wee Ellis was a saxophone player who led James Brown’s (1933–2006) and Van Morrison’s bands as well as co-writing songs such as “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Musical career

Ellis joined James Brown’s band in 1965, soon becoming his bandleader. During the four years he was with Brown’s band, Ellis, helped write and arrange songs including “Cold Sweat” and “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Ellis’ arrangements for Brown’s band were highly influential in the development of funk music. In 1979, he joined Van Morrison’s band and went on to lead it, working on albums including “Into the Music” and “Days Like This.” Ellis formed the band The JB Horns with other former members of Brown’s band, and he later toured with Ginger Baker (1939–2019).  Ellis also performed and recorded with artists including Esther Phillips, David Liebman, and Maceo Parker.

Notable quote

“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’ was like a Black anthem as soon as it was released. We recorded it in Los Angeles, then went to NYC Apollo Theater where as soon as JB said Say It Loud, the whole audience yelled I’m Black and I’m Proud… That brought goose bumps and made the hair on the back of your neck stand up… That was an incredible touching moment. Maybe the proudest, to know you’d touched so many people so quickly and so deeply was humbling and quite special. That song made an impact on the civil rights movement in a positive way. I think it helped move it forward. It boosted young people’s confidence and sense of self.” —from a 2017 interview with Dani Wilde

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Tributes to Pee Wee Ellis

Full obituary: The Washington Post

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